ONIGIRI COULD BE NONE BUT A BALL OF RICE, UNTIL YOU’VE HAD A REAL ONIGIRI AND REALIZED WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT…
A BALL OF REALLY GOOD RICE
The weather in Beijing is driving me mad. Rainy, swampy, relentlessly brownish grey. In all the fond days that I’ve been in this dump, all five years and counting, the summers have never been this wet. Soaking wet. I mean let’s face it, nothing here is pleasant to begin with I’ll give you that. But for this region, a supposedly semi-desert climate for fuck sake, that for what it’s worth, the relatively dry summers and butt-cracks used to contribute as the pitiful silver-lining of being in this hell-hole. The cherry on a very bad cake. But lately, no. Not this summer. Every morning begins with a slow poach inside a thick tarred and slimy cloud of grossness – think the colons of Jabba the Hutt or inside Donald Trump’s comb-over under a baseball cap – then, comes the almost guaranteed torrential rains around 7 pm that marinates everything in a wet mop-like humidity. Then the next day, it repeats. Did I mention that the pollution congeals even more enthusiastically in its special sense of sarcasm? Did I mention that it’s been like this, for weeks.
It’s an understatement to say that these days, I’m not happy much. All the recent riots of Instagrams flaunting farmer’s markets, elf-like human beings and basic living bliss, only make me bleed jealousy and really hateful thoughts. If I could stab your heirloom tomato in the abdomen right now, I’d gladly do so with gruesome gratifications and throw in all its cousins for good measure. It’s also safe to say that these days, I don’t go out much. The joy of grocery-runs has been reduced down a battle of mind-dragging chores, not to mention, that at any given seconds, the heaven could punish me with an acid-fueled downpour for daring optimistic thoughts. These days, I made do with what I have.
Which brings us to this, onigiri, Japanese rice balls.
Truth is, I’ve been wanting to do another onigiri, one of the simplest joy of Asian foods, since the very first week of this bad-joke weather. But I worry. Thing is, it’s always tricky to explain something with such a blunt construct, where the appeal of it all relies almost entirely on the quality of the main simple ingredient – rice. You could have walked through this life eating and thinking that onigiri is none but a ball of rice, big deal, until you’ve had a real onigiri and realized what it’s actually about – a ball of really good rice. It makes. All the difference. I’ve done an onigiri post in the past, actually, using a rice-cooker without considering that to most, it was an exotic and unnecessary kitchen-gadget. But how to cook rice without one? I had no idea. So this time, it became inevitable to me that before I demonstrate on squeezing rice into a tight ball in front of a perplexed audience, I should at least learn how to cook it right with basic instruments.
Then once you’ve gotten that down, the possibility of onigiri is only limited by your imaginations, or okay, maybe weather, too.
Limited, I said, as in confined within the extend of my (and probably yours) existing pantry, but nonetheless, as nurturing and delicious as any origiri should be. Canned tuna, you have those don’t you, the responsible ones? American cheddar cheese, practically as essential as underpants. Gochujang/Korean chili paste, if not a must in your kitchen then it should be, but if really not, which I feel slightly sorry for, then Sriracha could do, too. Then nori sheets, practically keeps forever. A few easy stress-reducing squeezes and a kiss under the broiler, here you’ll have, the perfect summer food. Portable, versatile, heatwave-resistant not to mention exceedingly adorable looking. I think it’s almost a crime not to bring them to your next backyard party, Central Park picnic, or your weekend getaway in Montauk, or an elf-like afternoon delight by the Seine… Not that I could do any of those things here, especially these days, you know, but you can surely go right ahead. Just don’t show them to me on IG, ok? I bleed.
Unless being locusts is a personal motivation of yours, choose sustainable tuna such as: Albacore tuna from Hawaii, South/North/East Pacific, North Atlantic, US Atlantic, Japan/Canada North Pacific. Tongol tuna worldwide. Skipjack and bigeye tuna from Hawaii Eastern Central Pacific, US North Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Western Central Pacific.
- 4 cups freshly cooked (not day-old) good-quality Asian short-grain rice, this one is a safe bet
- 2~4 sheets Japanese nori/seaweed
- A few pinches of white sesame seeds
- 1 small can of tuna-in-olive-oil (150 grams after drained)
- 1 tbsp (16 grams) kewpie mayonnaise
- 1 1/2 tbsp (40 grams) Korean gochujang/chili paste
- 3/4 tsp toasted sesame oil, plus more for brushing
- 1/2 tsp tabasco sauce
- 1/3 tsp grated ginger
- 1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 4 slices American cheddar cheese
- Cook the rice according to your rice-cooker's instruction, or do it on the stove this way. Wait for the rice to cool enough to handle (covered with lid the hole time to prevent drying out).
- Meanwhile, drain ay excess liquid/oil from the tuna (save the oil! it's terrific for salad dressing), then with a fork, crumble/mix it evenly with kewpie mayonnaise, gochujang chili paste, toasted sesame oil, tabasco sauce, grated ginger and ground black pepper. Set aside.
- If you have onigiri-molds, or prefer to make them with a biscuit cutter-mold, do it. Otherwise, once the rice has cooled, prepare a bowl of water on the side and wet your hands thoroughly (prevents rice from sticking to your hands). Grab about 1/4 cup of cooked rice, then flatten it in your palm. Place 3/4 slice of American cheddar cheese and about 2 tsp of tuna-filling in the centre, then top it with another pile of rice. Wet your hands again, then squeeze the entire thing tightly into a ball . I find it easiest to squeeze tightly, hold for a few seconds for the rice to bond, then turn and squeeze again. Due to the over-stuffing nature of this onigiri (traditional onigiri probably only has 1/3 of the amount of filling), you may have to patch where the filings are exposing with extra nubs of rice. Once you have a tightly packed rice ball, set aside, then repeat until you've used up all the rice. You should have around 5~6 rice balls, and probably extra fillings left.
- You don't have to toast the onigiri, but in this case, I thought the specks of toasted sesame seeds look nice, so the choice is yours. Preheat the broiler on high. Sprinkle a pinch of white sesame seeds on the top of each onigiri, and place on a baking-sheet. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for about 10 min until the tops are slightly browned.
- If your nori sheets are slightly stale, simply swipe it over low flames for a few time and they should crisp up reliably. Now, for photography purposes, I used a smaller nori-sheet to wrap the onigiri so the rice is exposed. But typically, I like to encase the entire ball in nori-sheet. You can do it however you like. I also brush the surface lightly with toasted sesame oil for a nice sheen. Onigiri is best eaten within a few hours it's made.